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International Exchange of Ideas in Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Literature


Advisors (Nepal)
Shreedhar Prasad Lohani, Tribhuvan University Govinda Raj Bhattarai, Tribhuvan University Krishna Chandra Sharma, Tribhuvan University Arun Gupto, Tribhuvan University

Yubraj Aryal

Advisors (USA)
William L. McBride, Purdue University David E. Schrader, University of Delaware Charles Bernstein, University of Pennsylvania Johanna Druker, University of Virginia

Sunlight Publication
Kathmandu 2008

Dedicated to Marjorie Perloff whose ideas have influenced my own notion of art and aesthetics.
PUBLISHED BY SUNLIGHT PUBLICATION Kathmandu, Nepal Tel.: 977-01-4330632, 4332953 First Edition: 2000 copies Yubraj Aryal 2008 This book is copyright. It is subject to statutory exception and the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements. No reproduction of any parts may take place without the written permission of the editor or Sunlight Publication. First Published 2008 Cataloging-in-Publication Data Aryal, Yubraj The Humanities at Work Computer: Sahadev Maharjan, 4331173 Printed in Nepal

B. POETICS, ART AND AESTHETICS 25. Marxism, Poetics, Art and Aesthetics
Yubraj Aryal: What space has been occupied by Marxism in the recent American academia? Are Marx and Engels still read in the United States? Tyrus Miller: It's probably first useful to distinguish between Marxism as a particular ideology of socialist states and movements, on the one hand, and Marxism as a general method of cultural and social analysis. Although there is a history of Marxist politics in the United States, and there was a resurgence of activist interest in Marxism with the wave of political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this has been in decline since the 1980s. Marxism, however, has not disappeared so much as it has become broadly diffused in a range of humanities and social science disciplines in the universities, detached, in large part, from its immediate activist implications or the direct political links to a movement or state that it once had. There are probably many more academics who would profess to utilize Marxist theory or "historical materialism" in studying literature, popular culture, anthropology, sociology, etc., than would claim to be attempting to build a socialist society or to serve a socialist movement. Marxismespecially the less orthodox versions that take inspiration from its most original thinkers from Georg Lukcs, Antonio Gramsci, and Walter Benjamin to Louis Althusser, Theodor Adorno, and Fredric Jamesonoffers academics a way of linking culture, social structures, and history in a coherent and unifying framework. Moreover, Marxism from its inception has an intrinsic feature that has assisted its influence in present-day academia: its
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Tyrus Miller
Tyrus Miller is Professor of Literature and Provost of Cowell College at University of California at Santa Cruz. He is the author of Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars and Singular Examples: Artistic Politics of the Neo-Avantgarde (forthcoming).

interdisciplinary scope. Marx himself was a great autodidact, who brought together in a unique interdisciplinary mixture the study of philosophy, politics, economics, history, even literature and art to some extent. Many figures in the Marxist tradition show a similar interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scope: Gramsci was a trained philologist and linguist as well as an original political thinker; Lukcs was a major literary critic as well as philosopher; Adorno was an avant-garde composer, musicologist, empirical psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher. In their own reflections on how Marxism might inform their studies, these thinkers offer present-day academics practical models of how to bring together disciplinary knowledges in mutually illuminating ways. Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, are still read in the United States, but primarily in a historical light rather than as theoretical authorities. I don't believe you would find in many quarters reference to Marx and Engels as gospel authority, as was characteristic of the quotations from Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., in the writings of communist bloc writers in the most diverse fields. However, the influence of Marxism today resides most likely less in the works of Marx and Engels and more in the so-called "Western Marxist" and "New Left" thinkers of the twentieth-century: Lukcs, Gramsci, Sartre, the Frankfurt School, and so on. Y. A.: Marxism is a potential force of modernity. How would you assess the claim at least from your study of 1930s, a decade when Marxism was in upsurge; when social forces of mass politics and new media challenged the cultural foundations of the modernist movement? T. M.: If I've understood your question correctly, I would say that Marxism and modernism (or avant-garde) were parallel and often complementary phenomena. Both responded critically to the condition of capitalist modernitythat

uprooting and dissolution of traditional structures of society, authority, and culture under the influence of industrialism. In the broadest sense, Marx can be understood as a "modernist" thinker. As he memorably said in The Communist Manifesto, "All that is solid melts into air," and this made it, in his view, incumbent for the working class to invent a radically new order of culture, politics, and moral values. Is this really so different as Ezra Pound's imperative to "Make it new," or Virginia Woolf's view that "In or about 1910, human nature changed"? Both Marx and the great modernist writers were animated by that dual sense of anxiety about the loss of traditional boundaries and exhilaration at the task of inventing something completely new (or at least free of conventional restrictions). Moreover, despite the anti-avantgarde cultural politics of the official communist worldimposed, as you suggest, by Stalin in the 1930sthere are also many instances in which avant-garde artists identified themselves with a strain of political vanguardism, whether explicitly Marxist, or more anarchist and utopian. It is true that the utopianism and anarchistic streak of rebellious artists has often come into conflict with the pragmatic goals of practical Marxist movements, not to mention the cynical bureaucratic manipulations of official communist politics. But it would be historically inaccurate and oversimplifying to conclude that Marxism and modernism are therefore intrinsically opposed. Y. A.: Let me take you to the Marxist view on literature, art and aesthetics. How would you relate Marxist aesthetics (please focus on Brecht-Lukcs debate on aesthetics) with its general theory? How does Marxian aesthetic share with Hegelian aesthetic consciousness of totality? T. M.: As you note in mentioning an important debate, there is not so much a single "Marxist aesthetic," as there is a network of arguments and debates. However, I think that it is possible to distinguish between two major strains of

Marxist aesthetics, roughly aligned with the positions Lukcs and Brecht took in the 1930s. I'll call these, in shorthand, "exemplary" and "activist." The first view puts the emphasis on the work of art or literature as a representative historical and political "microcosm," which allows us to understand human agency and human action in a narratively or imagistically clarified form; in turn, we can carry this understanding out into our larger lives and apply the lessons and examples learned there. For Lukcs, he found this model social world in the realist and historical novel of the 19th century, especially those of Walter Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy. The emphasis, however, falls on the work of art as a fictional context of instructive examples and as a space in which, by observing literary characters and their actions, we can derive lessons that inform our social activities. The second view, represented by Brecht, also puts the emphasis on educating social agents, but sees the work of art in more instrumental terms: as a pedagogical and agitational tool. In the artistic tendency that Brecht representedconnected to agitational literature and documentarythe work of art should communicate social facts and offer commentaries on them, including ideological arguments about their political implications. Both aesthetics presupposed that fostering political change in the direction of socialism was the ultimate goal, but they held different views of the relation of artistic form to the artwork's educative function. For Lukcs, this educative process couldn't take place if the "world" of the artwork was not well-formed and thoroughly articulated in fictive, artistic terms; for Brecht, artistic form should take shape according to the educative tasks and audience of the work. To put it otherwise, Lukcs saw in the well-formed artwork a kind of microcosm of the Hegelian totality; Brecht was satisfied to see the work as an instrument and a fragment of that totality, which resided for him exclusively in the social world, not in the artwork itself.

I should also mention here a third strain of Marxist aesthetics that falls neither into the Lukcs or the Brecht position, strictly speaking. That is the Frankfurt School orientation, including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and more recently Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt. Although there are great differences among these different thinkers, they share a focus on the concept of experience, which is affected by social and technological change in modern society. They tend to see the artwork as a critical perspective on which the shortcomings of collective experience in contemporary society can be comprehended, and, often, as a model of an alternative experience that would be fuller, more intense, and freer. In a sense, this justifies the search, by modernist and avant-garde artists, for new expressive forms and new contents. These are not just formalistic exercises, but attempts to model experience in fresh, alternative, even utopian ways. Notably, these thinkers have close relations to artistic practice: Benjamin was a gifted literary writer and translator; Adorno was a trained classical composer; Kluge is a major author and filmmaker The experiential possibilities of modernist art stand in close relation to their theoretical views. Y. A.: How does Marxist interpretation of art interlink the idea of illusion and reality with the idea of ideology? Should aesthetic be so heavily informed by ideology? How far does aesthetics speak to, and of socio-historical conditions? In what way? Why not in otherwise way? T. M.: In the more official versions of Marxism, the notions of base and superstructure were often applied in crude ways, to suggest that artworks were "just" ideology, "mere reflections" of the real economic conditions. "Fiction" or "the aesthetic" came to be synonyms for illusion, ideological error, flight from reality, or passivity. However, in the more sophisticated theories that are important here, Marxist aesthetics attempts to account for the specific material

nature of art (as practice, institution, and set of artifacts) and the effects it can have on individuals and society. Artworks and art practices have, as it were, an internal logic and consistency, but they also have social functions and effects. The best Marxist aesthetics keeps both these dimensions in view, and in fact, accounts for their relationship: how, say, the structure of a work helps or hinders it from carrying out its social function. An art work shouldn't be reduced merely to a cipher of an ideology; since, however, one of the social functions a work can carry out is ideological expression, this possibility should neither be ignored or treated as if it were somehow irrelevant to the "true" aesthetic nature of the artwork. Art and ideology are a complex compound, and the task of Marxist aesthetics is live up to the complexity of that relation. As for the bigger picture of aesthetics in relation to sociohistorical conditions, it is worth mentioning that "art" and "aesthetics" may not always designate equal domains. "Aesthetics"particularly in our timemay comprehend a much larger domain of experience than experiences related to art: for example, our aesthetic feelings play a big role in things like consumer and lifestyle choices. No one would attempt to claim, I think, that my new kitchen appliance or my new t-shirt is a work of art, despite the fact that Jeff Koons has displayed toasters as art objects in museums and T-shirts are made from Barbara Kruger art texts; and nevertheless, my non-art appliances and t-shirt have been designed to shape and please my taste, and I exercise aesthetic judgment in choosing, say, the red one over the blue one. We perhaps underestimate how much our acceptance and even enjoyment of consumer design aesthetics has broader social effectshelping to maintain and expand a social order based on global consumerism. Y. A.: If we study the "European Realism" seen by Lukcs in Tolstoy, Chekhov, Maupassant, Gorky etc. in their fictional

works, it seems that they were employing, at least implicitly, a "reflectionist" mimetic concept of art. How do their realist works offer moral support for the kind of revolution that Marxism feels to be a historical necessity? Putting differently, how would you assess Marxism and realism in European social literary history? T. M.: As I mentioned earlier, Lukcs saw the realist novel as a kind of model society in miniature, where it was possible to see characters relating to social situations in ways that were more comprehensible than in everyday life. Realist novelshowever massive and complex, like Tostoy's War and Peacehave discernable boundaries and limits that allow the novelist to organize relations between characters in terms of coherent narratives. We can wrap our minds around them much more easily than we can in the essentially more amorphous and boundless space of our real lives. Lukcs thus thought that with respect to the domain of character and action that the realist novel could play a role analogous to that of social and political theory: taming the empirical messiness and complexity of social phenomena, in order to allow human individuals and collectives to gain mastery over their shared world. Hence, on these interesting and intelligent grounds, he was able to make the somewhat implausible argument that the 19th-century novel was a crucial instrument in the historical movement of the working class. Y. A.: Marxist reflectionist ideas of literature and art assume a direct correlation of material structure and representation. Such ideas are implicitly rejected by the modernist writers who explore the stream of consciousness, surrealist fancies, psychological depths, and existential emotions. One might, following Adorno, see their relation to mimetic realism as "negative." To what extent do you find modernist writers justified in their critique of mimetic

realism, and to what extent is Marxism justified in its criticism of modernist anti-realism? T. M.: One can't answer this with a straightforward either-or response, ie. either Marxism or modernism is correct. The dialogue of Marxism and modernism is more complex. Clearly, there were many aspects of modernist and avant-garde writing that led in the direction of politically and morally problematic views of human action, belief, and society, including asocial views of the psyche, the cult of violence, various primitivist and atavistic fantasies, and the legitimation of authoritarian politics on both the right and left of the political spectrum. However, this doesn't of itself invalidate the insights of modernism or make legitimate an overly schematic, reflectionist theory of knowledge. The reflectionist view was never sufficiently nuanced to provide Marxism with either a credible social epistemology or a sensitive theory of literature and art, nor was this aesthetic derived from it capable of comprehending a large portion of the most important writers and works of art of the twentieth century. Insofar as modernism spurred some thinkers Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno as advocates of modernism, Georg Lukcs as an intelligent critical opponentto develop Marxism in more flexible, critical ways, then modernism was not just artistically important, but socially and theoretically as well. Y. A.: What relationship does Marxism have with formalism? In other words, how does Marxism treat the concept of "'Form'"? How does such concept elucidate the meaning of "dialectical" criticism? Please focus on Adorno, Althusser, Benjamin, Lukacs and Sartre. T. M.: Formalism has a lot of different meanings in the history of modern aesthetics, and too often in the Marxist context, it was simply a term of denunciation against any

artistic deviation or play of imagination not disciplined to the party line. In the 1930s in the U.S.S.R., to be called a formalist was a sinister prelude to removal from public life and even disappearance into Stalin's secret prisons and gulags. However, formalism also has certain more precise meanings as well. One sense has to do with the role that specific properties of the medium and artistic material play in shaping the structure and sensual properties of the work. This figural space in which material and meaning dialectically interactdynamically and through contradiction and conflictoffers a precise sense of artistic "form" in a Marxist understanding. The best Marxist critics, in my view, recognized that this dialectical space of form was a key index to the historical forces shaping the work of art and one of the most important ways in which art articulates its social message and brings about social effects in its viewers (or listeners or readers, etc.). Therefore, though few of them with the partial exception of Adornowould have understood or described themselves as "formalists," they were nonetheless attentive, detailed, and sophisticated interpreters of "form," in the sense in which I've defined it. Y. A.: Individual psychology and collective consciousness often do not conform to the socio-material interaction. Would you not agree? T. M.: Yes, I definitely agree. Again, I find the Frankfurt School helpful, because of their sophisticated engagement with psychoanalysis and theories of language. Walter Benjamin, for example, explored the analogy of dreams as a model for understanding how material conditions and cultural expressions relate. Just as in the dreaming body, physical stimuli such as blood pressure and digestion may be translated in the dream into images and narratives having nothing to do with their physical "cause," so too the connection of "base" and "superstructure" is not one of

causation or mirroring, but rather "expression" and "figuration." We might say that the non-conformity of culture and consciousness to given material conditions is precisely what interests the Frankfurt School; it is this that offers the possibility of contradiction, resistance, newness, and change. Y. A.: Let me come down to postmodernism and Marxism. Postmodernism encompasses poststructuralist and cultural studies. Please tell me first, what setback poststructuralism gave to Marxism? It is often said that post-structuralism is a European weapon against Marxism? Do you believe postmodernism a regressive inclination of the west? Second, what legacy does cultural studies receive from Marxism? T. M.: I think it is a bit confusing to lump together poststructuralism, cultural studies, and postmodernism. Post-structuralism derived from a fairly specific, mostly French intellectual development, in which several very brilliant thinkers brought together theories of language and anthropology developed within the structuralist paradigm with the radical thought of three thinkers in particular: Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It is, however, correct to see in this theoretical tendency a rejection of Marxism and the presentation of a left-wing, anarchist-leaning, and aesthetically avant-garde alternative to Marxism. Although neither Marxism nor post-structuralism have been left intact by the changes in the world since the 1960s, and especially since the fall of the official communist bloc after 1989, together they represent two very powerful, but conflictual frameworks for understanding society and culture. Cultural studies has a fairly organic connection with Marxism, since it was especially inspired by the historical and critical studies of three important British Marxists:

Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm. There are now many diversified tendencies in cultural studies, but the basic lines, in my view, remain indebted to Marxism, including its continuing use of a concept of class to explain cultural differences and its orientation towards culture produced and consumed by popular strata of society. There is nothing intrinsically "postmodernist" about cultural studies views, although cultural studies methods may be used to study such paradigmatically "postmodernist" cultural artifacts such as advertising, video games, reality shows, and so on. Postmodernism, however, represented an important challenge to Marxism from another direction. Here I'm not speaking of postmodernism narrowly as a literary or artistic style, but as a wholescale discrediting of a range of comprehensive theories of history, including that totalizing, Hegelian-derived theory of "historical materialism" that canonical Marxism put forward as its banner. The idea that History was one great story of mankind, that it was heading in a single identifiable direction (progress or regress), that certain key identifiable agents (classes) were its main motive forces, and so on, was found by postmodernists to be no longer credible for a number of reasons. This included the rising complexity and differentiation of contemporary societies; the encounter with multiple, only partially commensurable histories coexisting in a global space; and considerations about linguistic and narrative representation that make the idea of history more problematically relative than previous generations of historians and historical theorists had appreciated. I do not think postmodernism is merely a regressive inclination of the West, but is rather a new reflexivity about itself that includes an acknowledgement that the West cannot define, on its own, "world history" or even "Western history." Rather, it must

construct far more tentative, changing, and dialogic views of itself, as it accounts for the contributions and criticisms of other agents in the global arena. Some may lament this as, in Spengler's famous words, the "decline of the West." I prefer to see it as a major readjustment that is necessary and that can have positive benefits for knowledge and improved global exchange of views. Y. A.: Thank you for your kind participation in our interview project! T. M.: Thank you!